Autistic Book Party, Episode 36: So You Want to Be a Robot

Today’s Book: “So You Want to Be a Robot: 21 Stories”, a collection by A. Merc Rustad

Autistic Character(s): The author, among others!

“So You Want to Be a Robot” is a collection of speculative short stories – mostly fantasy (or sci-fi of the extremely fantastical variety), mostly dark, and mostly queer.

Rustad is the author of an essay called “I Don’t Want Your Queer Tragedy“, so it’s interesting to examine the collection in that light. Queer, trans, and nonbinary characters are thick on the ground in virtually every story, and are written with variety and respect. Most of them have strong, close, passionate relationships. Most of them, despite the darkness of many stories, get happy or hopeful endings.

It would be a mistake to view this as a light-hearted collection, though. Rustad is not an author who’s ever shied away from themes of monstrousness, abuse, or sacrifice. Several stories, particularly “Tomorrow When We See the Sun”, and “Winter Bride”, are not for the squeamish. Body horror and mutilation are common themes, as are protagonists living as the prisoners of seemingly omnipotent, sadistic beings. Some of these stories are so dark that it would be unrealistic for readers to ask for a happy ending; the glimmer of hope at the end is sometimes only a sense that the protagonist managed to accomplish something important before the night closed in.

But the collection isn’t all darkness either. Some stories, like the Nebula-nominated “This Is Not a Wardrobe Door”, are positively celebratory – often in explicit defiance of mainstream tropes, anti-queer or otherwise, that dictate what can and can’t be celebrated. Even in the darkest stories, love and community, including their queer varieties, aren’t devalued – they are vital to what the protagonists are doing.

Most of these stories are familiar to me as someone who follows Rustad’s work, but having them together in one book puts their shared traits into greater focus. Unapologetically being full of queer and trans characters is one of these traits, as is an intense sense of longing and loyalty, and the use of suns and other really bright lights to signify evil. So is a sheer density of invention that reminds me of Catherynne M. Valente or Yoon Ha Lee:

But let’s say you don’t get eaten by the roses. The circle you find yourself in next is a lightless tower that goes downward and never up. Chains spun from hanged men’s gurgles crisscross the stairs that don’t really exist. Beware of the ivy along the walls, for it grows on memory, until your mind is choked and full of leaves, and roots dig out through your skin and you forget why you came, and you sit there forever, and forever, and forever, and…

As for autism, Rustad’s writing isn’t as focused on this aspect of their identity as on their gender or sexuality. But a few stories do have autistic characters. I’ve previously reviewed “Iron Aria” and “Under Wine-Bright Seas” here, both of which are good stories with trans protagonists who read as autistic and have expressive speech difficulties.

A third story with an arguably autistic protagonist is the collection’s final entry, “How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps”. The protagonist of this story, Tesla, both falls in love with a robot and longs to become one themself. They express their feelings through lists, some of which make it clear to me that Tesla isn’t neurotypical:

  1. 1. Pretend you are not a robot. This is hard, and you have been working at it for twenty-three years. You are like Data, except in reverse.
    2. (There are missing protocols in your head. You don’t know why you were born biologically or why there are pieces missing, and you do not really understand how human interaction functions. Sometimes you can fake it. Sometimes people even believe you when you do. You never believe yourself.)

I feel guilty claiming Tesla as an autistic character when “How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps” is so emphatically about other things. But it’s a deeply moving story about identity, dysphoria, depression, validation, and community, and it’s easily my favorite in the whole collection.

Overall, this is a very strong collection of stories that go well together. If you like what you’ve seen of A. Merc Rustad’s work online, you should definitely pick it up.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Ethics Statement: A. Merc Rustad is someone I consider a personal friend. I asked them for a review copy and received a physical copy of their book from the publisher for free. All opinions expressed here are my own.

This novella was not chosen by my Patreon backers; I read it because I was excited enough about it to read it on my own time. Reviews chosen by my backers are still in the pipeline, and you can become a backer for as little as $1 if you’d like to help choose the next autistic book.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 35: A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power

Today’s Book: “A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power”, a novella by Rose Lemberg

The Plot: A stranger arrives in the court of the Old Royal of the Burri Desert.

Autistic Character(s): The author.

“Portrait” is  set in the intricate fantasy world of Birdverse, in the same series as many other stories and poems I’ve reviewed here, but it stands well on its own. Its plot is a romance, although a romance of a very atypical type.

The Old Royal, an ancient and powerful person who rules a desert city and teaches at a magical school, is our protagonist. The Old Royal is effectively immortal, thanks to their connection to a magical star which prolongs their life and reincarnates them, with most of their memories, when they die. A young person, the Raker, arrives in the Old Royal’s court – but the Raker is not like the other people who flock to the Old Royal’s school. Extremely powerful and with a force of personality that utterly dominates most people, the Raker leaves a wake that confuses and concerns the Old Royal’s court. Perhaps it’s only the Old Royal themselves who can tame him – if the assassins that are rumored to be in the area, or the mysterious ghost who appears when the Raker sleeps, don’t get to them first.

(Readers familiar with Birdverse may recognize the Raker as a younger version of Tajar Kekeri from “Geometries of Belonging.”)

The Old Royal and the Raker have a sizzling attraction to each other that I can only describe as sexual, and they act on that attraction. But there’s no sex in the story, in the sense of anything involving genitals. Instead, the scenes between the Old Royal and the Raker are properly described as BDSM – except that BDSM practitioners in real life don’t have the kind of magic that can pierce someone’s skin with magic deepnames or turn you into a giant bird that flies around. These scenes manage to be wildly imaginative while also conveying intense desire and intense pleasure.

There’s also surprising depth to the kink in this story. Many nuanced issues around consent and negotiation are portrayed, including the question of whether and how someone as powerful as the Raker can ethically pursue relationships. Both characters make mistakes with each other, and then are quick to talk out those mistakes and fix them, which is basically my favorite romance trope ever.

Two other aspects of the romance provide refreshing representation. The kink in the story isn’t held to a perscriptive idea of what dominant and submissive partners should do: the Old Royal and the Raker are both tops, who negotiate complex and fulfilling interactions without either one psychologically submitting to the other. I also liked the way the Old Royal’s gender is handled. They’re gender fluid and undergo a magical gender transition every few years. They also preside over a festival where they help other trans denizens of Birdverse to do the same. In a very nice touch, Lemberg manages to make this aspect of the Old Royal’s gender clear without ever having to specify the anatomy of their current body.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I should mention something about it. I described the story as a romance, but romance as a genre contains some pretty strict expectations about endings. “Portrait” doesn’t have a traditional romance ending, but it also is not a tragic ending – this is not at all a queer tragedy story.

There is no autism anywhere in this story, but it’s another solid Birdverse installment with its detailed mythic setting, nuanced characters, and lyrical prose. If you’re into what it’s offering, don’t miss it.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Ethics Statement: Rose Lemberg is someone I consider a personal friend. I volunteered when they asked who wanted an ARC, and received an ebook copy for free in advance of the novella’s publication date. All opinions expressed here are my own.

This novella was not chosen by my Patreon backers; I read it because I was excited enough about it to read it on my own time. Reviews chosen by my backers are still in the pipeline, and you can become a backer for as little as $1 if you’d like to help choose the next autistic book.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 34: Iwunen Interstellar Investigations (Prologue Season)

Today’s Book: “Iwunen Interstellar Investigations (Prologue Season)”, a web serial by Bogi Takács

The Plot: A magic teacher from a planet of autistic people is shocked out of their routine by the arrival of a mysterious, injured stranger – and of some interplanetary intrigue.

Autistic Character(s): Almost everyone, including the protagonist!

Iwunen Interstellar Investigations is set on Eren, the aforementioned planet of autistic people, and so the first thing I want to talk about here is PLANET OF AUTISTIC PEOPLE.

We’ve seen disability-centric societies in previous Book Party episodes. “Kea’s Flight” is set in a society of developmentally disabled teenagers on a spaceship, but the teenagers are supervised by NT caregivers and robots. “This Alien Shore” gives us Guera, a planet where everyone, including the leadership, is disabled or mentally ill. But while there is a major character who comes from Guera, and some interesting scenes of intrigue between Gueran leadership, we saw very little of what Gueran life was like on the ground.

Iwunen Interstellar Investigations starts us off right at the beginning with scenes of relatively normal life on Eren. So right away this is EXCELLENT. Ranai ta-n Iwunen, a magic teacher, is depressed, and is hoping that a new student, Wuda-reyun, will give them something to do – but Wuda-reyun, who is from another planet, is presumptuous and seems ill at ease with Ereni culture.

By the way, Eren is not just a planet of autistic people. It’s a MAGICAL planet of autistic people, in which magic (called “māwal”) is interconnected with high SFnal technology. This is exactly my jam. Unfortunately, once we have gotten to know Ranai and Wuda-reyun, the plot begins to move at such a fantastically fast clip that we only see Ereni society in glimpses. There are some really delightful details woven in – people are formal about power relations so that they are easier to remember! The word for “rules lawyering” is monomorphemic! – but in general, the story is not interested in explaining a lot about Eren. The story is interested in ADVENTURE! Pretty soon, Ranai et al are in a different part of the galaxy entirely, investigating something involving interplanetary politics and weapons deals.

The plot in general goes by quickly enough that readers not familiar with Bogi’s work might get confused at some points. The “Concepts” section on the website does a good job filling in basic background about the universe, and I would recommend it during the early stages of reading.

As to the characters themselves, they are just fine. Almost everyone on Eren shares the “Ereni cognotype” (their word for autism), but characters have their own diverse personalities, from the cautious and authoritative Ranai to the naive and principled Abinayun to Mirun, the stranger from another world, who literally crashlands in the story with great eagerness and little control. We also see glimpses of Ranai’s daughter, Birayu, a creative child with atypical language skills who adores food. Birayu’s presence is important from a representation perspective, as it shows that not everyone on Eren is “high-functioning”, and that a range of abilities are accepted. Ranai is a single parent who employs someone to assist in raising Birayu, which seems to be an arrangement that is working out, although I would have liked to see them and Birayu interact more in early chapters.

There is also a hint of a budding romantic attraction between Ranai and Mirun, both of whom are nonbinary. Since Ranai is demisexual, this part of the story occurs gently and gradually and is still far from being resolved at the end of the season. (Mirun’s origins, by the way, are among the things that aren’t explained in this story. But if you are up for some darker fare, you can find them in “Toward the Luminous Towers“.)

Bogi objected when I filed this story, on Patreon, under “cheerful books”: some bad things are certainly implied, both in Mirun’s vaguely-hinted-at backstory and in the political intrigue. It’s just that, as a dedicated reviewer of books about autistic people, a disproportionate amount of my reading deals with ableism, abuse, and other Bad Things. There are some really well-done, really important books that talk about Bad Things, and Bad Things are pervasive in real life. But I cannot describe how refreshing it is to read an adventure with a happy ending in which autistic people run around without being constantly oppressed for being autistic. That’s what I mean when I call this one “cheerful”. I don’t want there to be fewer books about Bad Things, but I do want there to be MORE books like this one!

This is overall a sprightly, enjoyable read with many twists, and with a gaggle of interesting autistic characters whose personhood is never in question. I’m looking forward to further installments in the series, and I’m hoping that they will take us in even greater depth into the world of Eren.

The Verdict: Recommended

Ethics Statement: Bogi Takács is someone I would consider a personal friend. I read eir web serial by waiting for the chapters to be posted for free on eir website. All opinions expressed here are my own.

This book was not chosen by my Patreon backers; I read it because I was excited enough about it to read it on my own time. Reviews chosen by my backers are still in the pipeline, and you can become a backer for as little as $1 if you’d like to help choose the next autistic book.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 33 and a half: Short Story Smorgasbord, Rhysling edition!

I’m at a conference this week, so I’m going to be scarce, but not too scarce to point you in the direction of some great poetry by autistic authors. Here’s what I found in my 2017 Rhysling anthology that wasn’t already freely available elsewhere.

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Sara Backer, “The Genius” (Mithila Review 3)

I have never interacted with this author, but I suspect that this poem is a case of accidental representation. I suspect she wasn’t thinking of autism when she wrote it, but just happened to write a fairly accurate description of some autistic people’s experience: seemingly unoccupied, while intensely engaged in sensory processing, pattern recognition, and reflection. The unintended irony with this one is how it describes the titular character interrupted by “people who want to pay her / to achieve something”. I only wish real autistic people, who face one of the highest unemployment rates of any disabled group, were deluged by such offers. [YMMV]

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Rose Lemberg, “The Journeymaker to Keddar (II)” (Marginalia to Stone Bird collection)

[Autistic author] This is a part of the Journeymaker Cycle which I previously reviewed, as a whole, in my review of Rose’s collection. In fact, it’s the concluding installment. So I was quite surprised to find that it also stands well on its own. It is an emotional mythic poem about separation and personal growth, on a very large scale. [Recommended-2]

*

AJ Odasso, “Sargasso Sea” (Remixt magazine 1.1)

[Autistic author] An intensely personal poem about intersex experience. The narrator struggles with feelings of monstrousness as lovers, doctors, and others deal with their body very poorly. Like one of Merc Rustad’s protagonists, they ultimately find the idea of monstrousness freeing. Fans of poems about difficult sexual and bodily experiences will enjoy this one. [Recommended-2]

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AJ Odasso, “Widening Gyre” (Not A Drop anthology)

[Autistic author] A poignant poem about things lost at sea, which may be irrecoverable despite rituals intending otherwise. [Recommended-2]

Autistic Book Party, Episode 33: A Different Witch

Today’s Book: “A Different Witch” by Debora Geary

The Plot: An autistic witch named Beth travels to Witch Central in California in order to learn more powerful magic than what is practiced by her circle at home.

Autistic Character(s): Beth, as well as a small boy who shows up in one or two scenes.

This was a bit of a frustrating book for me. There was a lot I wanted to like. Witches! Witches with Asperger syndrome! NT witches learning how to accept and accommodate autistic witches!

Years ago, members of the Witch Central circle abruptly showed up in Beth’s circle, told them they were doing everything wrong, and left. Since then, Beth has always intended to find Witch Central and learn more. The main arc of the book revolves around her learning the ropes from Witch Central’s witches, and the other characters learning to adjust what they’re doing to make it easier for Beth.

This is a perfectly good main arc for the book, and its basic information about autism is pretty accurate, though sometimes oversimplified. But I found it irritating to read more often than not, for two basic reasons.

First, the book is all about learning to make accommodations for an autistic person. In the absence of another major conflict, the plot is constructed around Witch Central’s witches trying really hard to teach Beth, succeeding a little, failing a little, going into a knot of angst about why they failed, learning a valuable lesson, and trying again. This might not be a bad thing, except that a lot of the try/fail/angst/learn cycles didn’t really make sense to me. Take this scene, for example, when a witch named Nell watches her three daughters unexpectedly accost Beth:

Beth’s brain was practically shaking. Nell felt her temper firing up. Easy welcome streamed from her girls-and Beth was reacting like she was under machine-gun fire. She touched Ginia’s shoulder, trying to get mama bear back on the leash. “Those are all good ideas. Why don’t you go grab some cookies?” She added a gentle mental shove behind the words, and this time her triplets caught the unsaid message. Three subdued girls made their way into the house. Nell tried to resist the urge to kick at the woman who had deflated their everyday joy. “They’re excited about the party. Sorry if they were a bit overwhelming.” Her next sentence steamed out of its own accord. “Most people who come here for training want to be included in our lives.”

It’s not clear to me why Nell is even angry here, since no one told Beth that she was supposed to be friends with the other witches’ families. It’s not clear to Nell either, and she spends a lot of time soul-searching to find out why she reacted that way. The trouble is that a lot of the scenes in the book fail to make sense in this way. Beth gets overloaded by something, and the other witches freak out, because OMG, what does it mean if their normal practices are overloading to someone? Have they failed at training Beth?? Is it impossible for Beth to be a witch here??? Then I get annoyed at the characters and want to tell them to take a chill pill because sometimes overload just happens and is not meant as a judgment on anyone.

A lot of the solutions to the problems also fail to make sense to me. As another example, Beth is reluctant to go to a big family get-together and decorate for Solstice, because it’s too many people. But the witches agree to keep all the people from getting too noisy (by whatever neurotypical definition of “too noisy” they are using), and then everything works out fine and Beth is touched by their efforts to adjust things for her. Based on my own experiences around people and noise, I would say that while this strategy might work, it comes off as far too easy on the page.

The stakes in all of these problem/angst/solution cycles are also vastly unclear. Why is magic so important to Beth that she’ll get on a plane and go far out of her comfort zone, into a nest of strangers, to learn about it? Why is Beth’s magical development so important that the other witches will go so far out of their way to teach her, apparently without pay? Why do all the witches need to be best friends with each other? Why are we having this conflict in the first place?

“A Different Witch” doesn’t have the battle-and-action-y stakes of many urban fantasies. That’s not a bad thing; it’s good to see urban fantasy once in a while that’s quieter and not focused on fighting some bad guy. But apart from a few of the spells, I don’t really have a clear picture of how magic is useful in the witches’ everyday lives. Most of the magic in the book involves trying to make pretty bubbles out of different elements, which is cool, but seems a little bit underwhelming when you consider the big emotions and personal sacrifices that go into it. If magic is spiritually significant to the characters, as it is for many IRL pagans, I don’t have a clear picture of how that works for them, either. It’s possible that the answers to these questions might be clearer if I’d read the previous books in the series. But in the absence of that, I spent a lot of the book confused why everyone is angsting so hard about whether or not an autistic witch can make pretty bubbles the right way.

The second problem with the book is that I don’t have a clear picture of who Beth is beyond being a fire witch with Asperger syndrome. Every single thing she does in the novel seems to revolve around her autistic traits. Even the positive, complimentary things people say about her (she’s a strong person) immediately go back to her autistic traits (it takes strength to live with an autistic brain every day, SIIIGH). We know that she is a health food nut, but only because a sugary diet is hard for her autistic brain to handle. We know that she is a lesbian and manages a store with her NT girlfriend, but even her interactions with her girlfriend seem to revolve around her autistic traits:

It was only two words—but so much more rode in her partner’s eyes. Frustration welled in Beth’s veins. “Come on, Liri. You know I can’t read what you’re thinking. You have to tell me.” It was one of the central tenets of their relationship, and something Beth had learned sprang from love anyhow. You gave what your lover needed.

It’s not that I want there to be scenes in which an autistic person’s autism isn’t there. It’s just that the book seems to spend so much time saying “X and Y are hard for Beth because autism” that the rest of Beth gets lost. Aside from wanting to make pretty magic bubbles, there’s not much sense of what is important to Beth or of what Beth’s desires are. Even her relationship is described as having happened because Liri was patient and helped convince Beth that it was a good idea, not because Beth did any normal human things like having a crush on someone. Perish the thought.

A lack of agency on Beth’s part makes the book’s first problem more problematic. The witches of Witch Central were the ones who decided Beth’s magic isn’t good enough. They decide what Beth needs to do to fit in with them, even when it’s something (like getting along with their children) which logically doesn’t have a lot to do with magic lessons. They find out that, for Beth to do these things, she needs accommodations, so they work on that. But once they have the right accommodations, there is no more problem. Beth does magic their way. Beth gets along with them and their kids, and everybody gets to pat themselves on the back for becoming so understanding of Beth. The book spends a lot of time on making accommodations so an autistic person can do what you want them to, and very little time asking what the autistic person wants.

This is a subtle problem, and the book isn’t all bad. Beth does get to call out the Witch Central witches on things they’ve done wrong, including the arrogance of waltzing in and telling her she was doing magic wrong in the first place. There are some heartwarming scenes, including one late in the book where an older witch visits Beth and Liri’s shop and is genuinely interested and respectful.

Overall I think this is a very well-intentioned book, by an author who wanted to educate readers about autism and inclusion. It gets a lot right, but it has subtle problems with agency and tone which continually frustrated me. Unless you have a great love for cozy urban fantasies, I think most autistic readers would be happier reading something else.

The Verdict: YMMV, but I didn’t like it

Ethics Statement: I have never interacted with Debora Geary. I read her book by buying an electronic copy from Amazon. All opinions expressed here are my own.

This book was chosen by my Patreon backers. If these reviews are valuable to you, consider becoming a backer; for as little as $1, you can help choose the next autistic book.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.

Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 3: A Wizard Alone (Original Edition)

(This review was first posted Mar 3, 2013. It has received minor edits for clarity and style.)

Today’s Book: “A Wizard Alone” by Diane Duane.

The Plot: In a contemporary YA fantasy setting, a budding wizard named Darryl has gotten stuck in his Ordeal – a wizards’ initiation. Teenage wizards Nita and Kit are sent to figure out what’s gone wrong.

Autistic Character(s): Darryl McAllister.

I really don’t know where to start with this book. Darryl is central to the plot, and there are some very good and very bad aspects of the way he is portrayed. I’m going to start with the good ones, I guess, because there are fewer of them.

First, Darryl is African-American. This is excellent because autism is so often portrayed as something that affects white male children, with maybe a few white girls sneaking in every once in a while. Intersectionality is always a plus. (Kit is also Latin-American, FYI.)

Second, Darryl is intensely good and intensely likeable. We quickly find out that he’s not a helpless victim stuck in his own Ordeal: he’s deliberately drawing it out for reasons that are complicated, but logical, and beneficial to the world around him. And despite having no support whatsoever, he approaches this task with a deep, cheerful courage that instantly endears me to him forever.

Third, the book touches on the problem of one’s preconceptions of disabled people influencing one’s perceptions of them. The first few times Kit sees Darryl, he expects Darryl to be a helpless victim, so that’s what he sees. Kit doesn’t find out the truth about what Darryl is doing until Darryl makes magical contact with Nita – who doesn’t know that he’s autistic, or even that he’s human. Kit then realizes that because he had an idea in his mind about what autistic people were and weren’t capable of, he couldn’t see what Darryl really was capable of. This is a very important point and Duane gets props for putting it in there.

Those are the good points. Now for the bad ones. First, there’s the “cure” theme: as part of what’s otherwise a fairly clever ploy at the end of the book, Nita and Kit give Darryl a magic Get Out Of Autism Free card. (Not literally a card, but you know what I mean.) I need to make a whole separate post on the problems with “cure” stories.

It’s not just the ending, though. Duane attempts to give helpful information about autism to her readers, but most of it is so incorrect that I don’t even know what to say. We are told, for example, that people are not born with autism but become autistic at various ages; that autistic people avoid eye contact because they cannot stand the idea that other people exist; that neurotypical people do not understand what autism is like because not enough autistic people have been cured and “come back” to tell neurotypical people about it; that autism is caused (at least in Darryl’s case) by the devil, and is easily magically separable from the rest of Darryl’s personality; that the withdrawal/retreat symptoms of autism are identical to the symptoms of depression; that all autistic people are hypersensitive rather than hyposensitive to sensory stimuli; and so on. I can’t talk about what’s wrong with each of these points here because it would make this post even longer than the Vernor Vinge one. But they are all incorrect and all harmful.

Furthermore, while Darryl is quite likable, many aspects of his characterization make no sense. He switches very quickly and repeatedly between being completely unaware that other people exist, and being conscious enough of them to use some fairly sophisticated theory of mind. Not only does this speed of switching make no sense, but there’s no middle ground. Darryl never has any realistic impairments in understanding people’s beliefs and motivations, he just forgets that they exist. Duane makes attempts to explain this, but they make no sense either. Apparently, Darryl’s autism causes the world around him to be too painful to deal with, so he intentionally forgets that other people exist, and then remembers again for a while, and then forgets again, and… Yeah. It’s just silly.

The big thing that bothers me about this book, though, is the conflation of autism with depression. This is not a minor point. A significant subplot of the book involves Nita grieving for her mother’s death (which happened in a previous book) and struggling with her own depression. There are some nice things about how this subplot is handled. But Nita doesn’t start to beat her depression until she makes contact with Darryl – and realizes that her withdrawal from the world, in her depressed state, is identical to his. Not that Nita is autistic, of course; they just happen to both be withdrawing from “real”, “meaningful” engagement with the world because it’s too painful. After talking to Darryl, Nita realizes that this is unhealthy for her and she has to stop. She talks Darryl out of it too, which is where the Get Out Of Autism Free card comes in.

Never mind that Darryl is kicking epic-level supernatural butt in his Ordeal while withdrawing from “real”, “meaningful” engagement everywhere else. Apparently that doesn’t make his withdrawal more acceptable. Duane pays attention to Darryl’s awesomeness when she’s actually talking about him, but she’s happy to ignore it when she’s using him to make a point about NTs.

This bothers me for a very personal reason.

Depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders affect autistic people too.

Did you read that? Depression is not the natural state of an autistic person. It is a mood disorder that either NT or autistic people can develop, which means there’s actual intersectionality between depression and autism.

A depressed autistic person does not need you to cure their autism. A depressed autistic person needs you to fix whatever is causing the actual depression – whether that’s an imbalance in brain chemistry, an abusive home/work situation, poor mental coping strategies, or what. If you’re going around saying “but autism is just like depression anyway”, you are NOT HELPING.

And that’s the part of “A Wizard Alone” that’s going to really stay with me.

The Verdict: Not Recommended

NOTE: Diane Duane is aware of criticisms of the portrayal of autism in this book. In the New Millennium Edition of her Young Wizards series, a lot of things are updated, and the portrayal of autism is one of the updated things. The New Millennium Edition of “A Wizard Alone” is reviewed separately in Autistic Book Party, Episode 9.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 1: Blind Lake

(This review was first published on December 12, 2012. It has been given minor edits for clarity and style.)

Today’s Book: “Blind Lake” by Robert Charles Wilson.

The Plot: Scientists are using a super powerful quantum computer to look at aliens on another planet. Then suddenly their town is put under quarantine for reasons that are not explained to them, the aliens begin behaving strangely, and everyone has to figure out what’s going on.

Autistic Character(s): Tess Hauser, an eleven-year-old girl.

Tess isn’t a protagonist (the protagonists are her mother Marguerite and a science journalist named Chris), but she is one of an ensemble of viewpoint characters and plays an important role in the plot. She is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome several years before the story begins, and while there are a number of therapies in her past – including medication – Marguerite has come to accept her autism simply as a personality type.

Marguerite is a realistic portrayal of a well-meaning NT parent. She is long past the point of trying to “fix” Tess, but it is still painfully obvious to her when Tess is less communicative than other children, or when she has trouble making friends. Marguerite and Tess have recently moved to a new city when the story begins, and Marguerite worries a lot about how Tess will do at her new school – at least until the plot throws bigger problems at both of them.

But Marguerite’s view of Tess isn’t the only one we get. We see plenty of scenes through Tess’s eyes, and Tess wastes little time thinking about her differences from other children. Instead, when reading from Tess’s POV, we see how intelligent she is, and how easily she is captivated by weather, nature, and symmetry. Tess is uncommunicative, not because she has no opinions, but because she is constantly lost in thought about things the other characters aren’t thinking about. Wilson shows us these thoughts appealingly and convincingly without ever putting too fine a point on how they differ from the thoughts of the adults. This is a very tricky point, and one that you can’t get right just by looking at the DSM, but Wilson, in my view, gets it right.

We also see Tess through the eyes of other adults who don’t worry about her as much as Marguerite does. Her father doesn’t think about her autism much at all (though he is the villain, and his attitude to Tess is mostly possessive). Meanwhile, Chris befriends Tess and accepts her immediately; in fact, Tess reminds him of his own younger sister.

But there’s one more point about Tess that I need to bring up before giving her the “cluefully written Aspie character” stamp, and that is the fact that Tess sees things other characters don’t believe in. Unfortunately, I can’t talk about this without EXTREMELY MAJOR SPOILERS, so follow me under the cut if you dare!

Continue reading “Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 1: Blind Lake”

Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 0: Movement

(This post was published on February 26, 2012 – hard to believe that’s more than five whole years ago. It’s about Nancy Fulda’s short story, “Movement”, which was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula that year. You may note that this post is not structured like other Autistic Book Party posts, and that it doesn’t give as much context or introduction to the story it’s talking about. This is because it actually predates the Autistic Book Party series, as such. It’s the very first autism review I ever posted publicly. Please enjoy this blast from the past!)

I want to say this as concisely as I can.

Naming a fictional condition after autism, when even the characters in the story agree it is nothing like autism, is a bizarre choice. Cashing in on autism in this manner while it’s trendy is not helpful to autistic people, our families, or anyone else.

Writing a bad depiction of autism, and saying “but it isn’t real autism!”, does not excuse you for writing a bad depiction of autism.

Real autistic people have things going on in our lives other than autism. “I don’t want to be cured” is a nice sentiment, but it rings a little hollow when it is the conclusion to a story in which nothing happens except other people being unhappy with the protagonist’s not-autism, other people wanting to “cure” her, and her trying to deal with her perceptual differences. These are things that happen in the lives of most autistic people, but a story with this structure inherently distorts and romanticizes them.

You can write a story like this and still be an ally of neurodiversity. But writing a story like this does not make you an ally. Reading a story like this does not make you an ally. Voting for a story like this in awards season does not make you an ally. It is, in fact, unhelpful.

Real autistic people’s lives are not like this story.

It’s not my job to tell you what to vote for. Vote for what you like. But please understand what it is you are voting for.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 32: Otherbound

Today’s Book: “Otherbound” by Corinne Duyvis

The Plot: Every time Nolan (a modern teenager) blinks, he sees through the eyes of Amara, a servant girl in a fantasy world.

Autistic Character(s): The author.

This is my second review of one of Duyvis’s books, after “On the Edge of Gone”. Although “Otherbound” has no autistic characters and runs on a completely different premise, the two books share a diverse, disabled cast and a keen awareness of the power dynamics that constrain each character.

Seeing through the eyes of someone in another world sounds cool, until you stop and think about what it would actually entail. The connection between Nolan and Amara is invasive and unpleasant for both of them. Amara doesn’t want to be constantly watched, even in her most private moments, by a person she doesn’t know. Nolan doesn’t want to be constantly distracted from what’s happening in front of him by his uncontrollable visions – especially when Amara spends time being abused, injured, even tortured, in ways Nolan feels but can do nothing about. When he does find methods to affect Amara’s world, they are methods that can violate Amara’s agency. Duyvis does a good job showing the complexities of how the two of them try to deal with this and to negotiate boundaries – clumsily, imperfectly, a little at a time and with a lot of justified resentment.

Nolan’s periods of distraction have been misdiagnosed as a form of epilepsy. The trope of a character being misdiagnosed because of their magical powers can be problematic, but Duyvis handles it deftly. The trick is that Nolan is genuinely disabled by his visions. He’s not an able-bodied person who was called disabled because people misunderstood him; he’s a disabled person who got told the wrong name for his disability. Because of his visions, he can’t keep up with school, maintain normal friendships, or even fold laundry successfully; that’s how difficult it is for him to focus on the world that is around him. Meanwhile, other disabilities and forms of diversity are also represented. Before the book begins, Nolan lost his foot in a car accident (caused by his visions). He belongs to a Latinx family and speaks both Spanish and English at home; money is a problem, and his mother has taken a second job to help pay for his medicine. Amara is bisexual, her world is predominantly nonwhite, and she is non-speaking, because her tongue was cut out when she became a servant: servants in her world converse using sign language.

You might have guessed already from these descriptions that a lot of unpleasant things happen in this book. They do. And, especially in the first half of the book, Amara and Nolan are both relatively helpless in the face of these unpleasant things. It can be difficult to slog through scene after scene of Amara being treated horribly and Nolan running off to curl up somewhere and feel sick. This does improve as the book goes on: characters gain more control and more agency, and the pace picks up. The last third in particular is delightfully full of nail-biting twists as the characters discover secrets about why they are connected as they are, and what that means for their worlds.

A lack of character agency in places might also be an unfair criticism, because it’s intimately connected to one of “Otherbound”‘s greatest strengths: its keen awareness of power dynamics. Amara lacks agency, not because of anything wrong with her as a person, but because she’s been trained since childhood to do nothing but obey and will be punished if she deviates. The people who abuse her are bad in an obvious way, but Duyvis spends just as much time detailing subtler ways in which power affects Amara’s life. She is attracted to the princess she serves, for instance, but their power difference makes that attraction difficult to deal with in ways that the princess’s sincere attempts at kindness do nothing to fix. The princess herself is under a magical curse in which any small injury could kill her, and this makes her dependent on others for help. As mentioned, Nolan and Amara’s connection brings additional forms of powerlessness into both lives which are difficult to deal with. And while Nolan lives a materially more comfortable life, he has his own power problems: not least of which is the fact that he has to lie to his family and his doctor to conceal what’s really happening during his “seizures”.

(This leads to one of my few other criticisms, which is so small that I really don’t feel it’s worth mentioning, but I’m compulsive and I have to. Duyvis mentions in the epilogue that Nolan ends up seeing a therapist who helps him deal with the trauma of what happened to him during the book. I understand why this line would be included: it’s good to show trauma being real, and characters going to therapy for it without being judged. But Nolan previously spends the entire book hiding his visions from everyone because no one will believe him; most people would classify his visions as hallucinations or delusions. So where does he suddenly find a therapist who believes him and who gives him appropriate PTSD therapy instead of trying to treat him for being delusional? And how does he explain this therapist to his parents? Therapy is not equally accessible to everyone, and that is a point that people often forget.)

Like “On the Edge of Gone”, “Otherbound” is at times a difficult read, but a well-crafted one which has important things to say about agency and power, and which sensitively portrays an intersectionally diverse world. If you can stand the abuse scenes, you could do a lot worse than to pick this one up.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Ethics statement: I have occasionally corresponded with Corinne Duyvis and have posted reviews on her Disability in Kidlit site. I read her book by borrowing an e-copy from my local library. All opinions expressed here are my own.

This book was chosen by my Patreon backers. If these reviews are valuable to you, consider becoming a backer; for as little as $1, you can join in voting on the next autistic book.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 31: Marginalia to Stone Bird

Today’s Book: “Marginalia to Stone Bird”, a poetry collection by Rose Lemberg

Autistic Character(s): The author.

I am going to try to write this review in a way that isn’t just jumping up and down and squeeing, because quite apart from the issue of being autistic, Lemberg is one of my favourite speculative poets ever and “Marginalia to Stone Bird” is their debut collection. And although I write poetry I do not think I am very good at reviewing it in detail, but I will try.

“Marginalia to Stone Bird” is a collection of speculative poems (almost entirely fantasy, with a single sci-fi scenario thrown in). The topics of the poems progress from magic realism firmly set in the real world, to folktales and love stories in fairytale-like settings, to the mythic, epic Journeymaker Cycle that dominates the last third. All of them are written in the lush, ornate language that is Lemberg’s trademark:

Give me of these fine threads that sing with indigo and weld,
I’ll make them into a carpet of my hurts,
knot them into a desert alive with Bird’s burning,
I’ll weave—with undyed wool and spidersilk—
the bones out of their hiding places.

This kind of language will not be to everyone’s taste. But I love it, and the ornateness is never at the expense of making sense. The poems also play off each other well enough that reading some will provide useful context for others; many, for instance, are set in the same world, Birdverse (also the setting of “Grandmother Nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds“, “The Book of How to Live“, “The Desert Glassmaker and the Jeweler of Berevyar“, and “Geometries of Belonging“).

Lemberg’s poetry is very socially aware. The first third of the book, mainly magic realism, is centered firmly in the experience of oppression in the real world: immigration, faith and doubt, war, a failing marriage. The middle section translates these oppressions to the fantasy realm: its heroes are exploited peasants, abandoned women, unwanted people whose surroundings and cultures never treat them particularly well. (At least one is trans.) The Journeymaker Cycle, in the final third, makes this awareness both larger and more inward. It’s a winding story that unfolds across multiple lifetimes, in which its reincarnated heroes struggle with the use and abuse of their power, taking refuge in powerlessness and then eventually needing to reclaim power; in which they try to use their power to help, and help many, but also run up dramatically short against the limits of that ability. (Readers who liked the healing-and-consent themes in “Geometries of Belonging” will be fascinated by the additional complexity that they take on in the poem “Long Shadow”.) The shorter, more magical realist poems of the final third also play off of these themes, presenting a narrator who is afraid of their own power, afraid to speak or create, and yet who feels inevitably drawn to creation.

There is a theme of doubling that recurs throughout the work, most obviously in one of its early poems, “The Three Immigrations”. While a real-world character moves from country to country in fraught and desparate circumstances, other characters in a surreal and mythic world do the same. Characters in “Marginalia to Stone Bird” are mirrored by their counterparts in other worlds, by ghosts, by other identities with other genders sharing their body, by the people they were in past lives. The fantastical is always present, even in what would seem to be a very unvarnished real-world scene – and the difficult, complex social and emotional webs that constrain people’s actions in the real world are never quite absent, either, even at the collection’s wildest and most mythic.

If anyone tells you that autistic people cannot imagine whole worlds with attendant mythology, or create beautiful phrases, or imagine other people’s lives, or write about complex social situations movingly and with empathy – point them at this poetry collection, please.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Ethics statement: Rose Lemberg is someone I consider a fairly close friend. I asked for an electronic review copy of this collection and was given one for free. All opinions expressed here are my own.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.